Low-tech machine from here aims to help Ugandans


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In this era of high-tech advances surfaces a story that proves that low technology still can improve lives.

Or, in this case, how a simple hand-operated rock crusher built at the University of Pittsburgh stands to improve the well-being of an entire Ugandan village.

No supercomputers, nanoparticles or new-age energy source here. Just a routine mechanical device that requires two sets of human hands to spin flywheels to crush rock -- which proves that high technology is in the eye of the beholder.

Months ago, Keith Task, a Pitt graduate working with the Peace Corps in Uganda, sent an e-mail to Pitt's Swanson Center for Product Innovation requesting construction of a hand-operated rock-crusher.

In the Ugandan village, 20 to 30 workers head for the hills with sledgehammers each weekend -- the only days they can spare while scratching out an existence -- to break granite boulders into pieces small enough to carry atop their heads to the roadside, where women and children hammer away to produce crushed rock.

A truckload of rock crushed into pieces the diameter of a quarter sells for $60 and is used in construction and roads. Ice-cube-sized rock brings $20 a truckload. Workers earn little for their labor.

So Mr. Task said a basic device that can crush rock to designated sizes would be a technological boon for the entire village. Dr. Michael Lovell, associate dean for research, discussed the idea with Dave Torick, a 35-year-old doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, and the project got under way.

Mr. Torick, a Pittsburgh native, said he viewed it as an opportunity to teach undergraduates the basics of design, how to machine metal and to create a lightweight mobile device that effectively crushes rock.

The result is a quarter-ton stone crusher that works by hand-spinning two flywheels that cause two tool-steel plates to chew chunks of rock into specific sizes, then let them fall to the ground in a convenient pile.

Mr. Torick and engineering students John Landreneau, 22, of Franklin Park, and Dave Beverly, 22, of Easton, Northampton County, recently demonstrated "The Rock Crusher" on a Benedum Hall dock prior to packing it to be shipped Wednesday to Uganda.

No complicated science here. Just wheels, bearings and grinders operated with some sweat equity.

But low-tech in Pittsburgh translates into a potential economic boost for the village. Once the crusher arrives, it can be used to create hundreds of pounds of rock per hour without exhaustive labor.

"We're hoping to bring more revenue into the village -- or finally the people can get a day off." Mr. Torick said. "Other villages might be pretty irritated."

Mr. Task, still in Uganda, could not be reached for comment via e-mail.

But Mr. Torick said he's seeking a grant to improve the design and reduce its weight, with hopes of producing rock crushers for impoverished villages in Africa, India, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Engineering students would build the devices as "a good nontraditional learning experience," he said.

The prototype cost Pitt about $2,500 to design and build.

"It blows my mind every time I think of people going into the hills on weekends to smash rock and make 50 cents a day," Mr. Torick said. "It becomes a higher priority when you realize what their lives must be like."

Although the project is low tech, Dr. Lovell said Mr. Torick designed the crusher with computer engineering software to make sure all components could withstand considerable wear and tear.

"This will be a good moneymaker for villages and something that will help with the quality of life," Dr. Lovell said. "This also will help the villagers and the country improve their road system."

Mr. Torick, formerly an engineer with Honda, said he returned to school to teach and work on projects to help people worldwide. The rock-crushing experience gave him a chance to fulfill that goal earlier than anticipated.

"I'm definitely looking forward to hearing how it goes in the field," Mr. Torick said. "I hope it improves the quality of life so they can meet their basic needs."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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